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"It takes years to process that kind of abuse": AG Josh Stein on prosecuting sexual assault, two decades later

Robert Adam Burns, 58, was sentenced to 16-20 years in prison this week for a 2004-2005 series of sexual assaults on a child.
New Hanover County Sheriff's Office
Robert Adam Burns, 58, was sentenced to 16-20 years in prison this week for a 2004-2005 series of sexual assaults on a child.

Robert Adam Burns started grooming a girl when she was 10 and began sexually abusing her in the following years. She had also been victimized by Peter Michael Frank, the former New Hanover County Schools band teacher who was sentenced to decades in prison last year.

According to Attorney Josh Stein’s office, Burns owned a comic book store in Wilmington where he met the victim in 2000. He began grooming her during surfing lessons at Wrightsville Beach. In 2004, when the victim was 14, Burns began sexually abusing her — assaults that lasted into 2005.

In early 2020, over fifteen years later, the victim came forward and in February of that year, Burns was arrested. Over the next two years, additional investigations were conducted and — feeling they had a strong case — Stein's office negotiated with Burns’ defense attorney. That led to this week’s guilty plea and a 16-20 year sentence handed down by Senior Resident Superior Court Judge Phyllis Gorham.

Stein told WHQR the case demonstrates how long it can take victims of sexual abuse to process their trauma and be able to come forward.

“Tragically, there's been much more understanding of the prevalence of child sex abuse. And as a result of that, we now appreciate that when teens or children are sexually victimized, they're not in a place emotionally, to be able to tell someone about it when it's happening in real-time, or often, when they're in their 20s. It takes years to process that kind of abuse,” Stein said.

Stein thanked the victim for her courage and said he hopes it sends a message to other victims.

"I hope this case lets people know that there can be justice, we owe so much to this woman who came forward after she'd been victimized as a child," Stein said.

In a press release, Stein shared the victim impact statement, which had been read during Monday's hearing: “Young women deserve the chance to be confident, silly, and flattering without it being seen as a proposition. They deserve the chance to make their own mistakes without your help. To feel confident in their bodies, even as they begin to change later in life. And they deserve adults who will help them heal from their trauma instead of compounding upon it.”

The importance, and uncertain fate, of the Safe Child Act

Stein pointed to the SAFE Child Act, a 2019 law drafted by his office and passed with bipartisan support. The law gave victims more time to file civil suits against their abusers — raising the cutoff age from 21 to 28 (although Stein said he lobbied for 45) — and opened a two-year window for victims to file regardless of their age.

“That's why we championed the SAFE Child Act a couple of years ago, to give victims of child sex assault an open window to bring a civil action against their abusers to hold them accountable. And in the case of felonies in North Carolina, there is no statute of limitations. And so if we can prove the crime, we can convict somebody, as what happened in this instance, 16 years after the crime actually occurred.”

The two-year ‘revival window’ of the SAFE Child Act is currently being challenged as unconstitutional by attorneys representing New Hanover County Schools (NHCS) and its various insurance companies in an effort to limit their liability in the civil case brought by victims and alleged victims of Michael Earl Kelly, a former teacher who pleaded guilty to dozens of acts of sexual abuse against students.

Related — Deep Dive: In heated, three-day court battle, NHCS tries to block Kelly's victims from suing

The issue was referred by Judge Gorham, who is also overseeing the civil case, to a three-judge panel, which focuses solely on constitutional issues. By some estimates, throwing out the revival window could lower the district’s potential payout by tens of millions of dollars.

Stein said he disagreed with the challenge to the SAFE Child Act.

“We made the recommendation because we think it's constitutional. Of course, it's in the courts right now. And we'll see what the courts ultimately decide,” Stein said.

Why the state was handling the case

Initially, the New Hanover County Sheriff’s Office investigated the Burns case and it was determined the victim had also been assaulted by Peter Michael Frank, the former New Hanover County Schools band teacher who wasrecently convicted on 17 counts of sexually abusing children and sentenced to at least 50 years in prison.

As with the Frank case, local law enforcement and prosecutors handed the case off to the state, since the victim knew the employee of District Attorney Ben David's office to whom she reported the crime. Investigating and prosecuting Burns was handed over to the State Bureau of Investigation (SBI) and Stein’s office, where state prosecutor Boz Zellinger handled the case.

Stein’s office is also handling a criminal investigation of obstruction of justice failure to report sexual abuse by NHCS leadership. District Attorney Ben David and Sheriff Ed McMahon made a joint request for the investigation in the summer of 2019.

The full scope of the investigation is not known. Initially launched in the wake of revelations that the district may have known, and failed to act on, information about Kelly, it now likely includes the district’s handling of Frank, former employee Nicholas Oates, and others — although both state and local officials have declined to comment on it until it is complete. Last summer, the SBI handed the case file over to Stein’s Office, but there has still been no official word on the status or progress of the investigation, and no charges have yet been brought.

“It's a massive investigation, and one which we are doing the evaluation of, thoroughly, and it’s in process,” Stein said.

Ben Schachtman is a journalist and editor with a focus on local government accountability. He began reporting for Port City Daily in the Wilmington area in 2016 and took over as managing editor there in 2018. He’s a graduate of Rutgers College and later received his MA from NYU and his PhD from SUNY-Stony Brook, both in English Literature. He loves spending time with his wife and playing rock'n'roll very loudly. You can reach him at BSchachtman@whqr.org and find him on Twitter @Ben_Schachtman.